Summer and Screens: How to Not Have a Power Struggle

The summer mornings of my childhood had a comforting sequence of game shows, from the Price Is Right to that one with a devil creature. I remember how soothing it felt to lounge with my breakfast while I proceeded through the shows’ predictable formulas with a tinge of suspense as the wheel spun exhilaratingly close to the big prize. This TV leisure, often capped off with All My Children at noon, took up the first half of my day before I figured out other ways to entertain myself as the afternoon stretched out until the 6:00 hour when my parents came home from work.

Fast forward to summers of now and we could be prosecuted for leaving our 11-year-old home alone all day every day. And we might feel compelled to put a limit on that morning TV time lest we violate the American Academy of Pediatric’s two-hour screen time guidelines. Contrary to parenting in the ‘80s, if anything can rev up the controlling impulses in today’s parenting, it’s our kids on screens.

For those of us with kids who have aged out of the summer day camp experience, we may be staring down the barrel of summer days with endless hours of screen time with more handwringing options than Bob Barker-hosted wholesomeness . . . and the modern-day screen time battles to go with it.

If you have a teenager like my teenager, they may have refuted any semblance of a structured activity during summer. Even if they have some hours filled throughout the week, they live in the fantasy of marathon days and nights with the end all and be all of life – their friends. Yet, in the reality of summer days that do not include a full-time chauffeur, the younger teens realize they can’t drive yet and thus their freedom is not unfettered. Their friends may have sports or other activities that do in fact make them unavailable to fill up emptiness in their days. So, what will they do with all that time besides be on their phones?

Or maybe you have a school-aged kid who is in day camp but comes home ready to play video games the rest of the day “because it’s summer.” Maybe they feel it’s our penance to allow more gaming than during the school year since we have forced them into the horrors of waking up early to rush off to a day of forced outdoor play in the ninety-degree weather.

Whatever your summer screen time situation, I’m here for you to take at least some struggle out of the power struggle.

Don’t Worry, Be Wary (of Media Headlines)

What should we actually worry about when it comes to our kids and screens? In her book, How to Raise Kids Who Aren't Assholes, science writer Melinda Wenner Moyer devotes a chapter to this topic in which she expertly debunks misleading headlines and conclusions. Just one example comes from a 2019 study of 350,000 teens that found almost zero effect of the amount of screen time on any bad outcomes. Basically, it’s more complicated than “screen time is bad.”

I have combed through research on screen time effects on young children and could not find convincing evidence that it’s as terrible as we fear. The bottom line is that the extreme of several hours a day before age three is associated with later problems with attention and sleep, but I could not find data to substantiate fears that the average amount of time parents allow toddlers to use screens (around 2-2.5 hours a day) has a negative effect on development.

The point is, your child is an individual that by its nature, research can’t capture. The science can inform your parenting approach without dictating it.

I have a chapter in my book all about how to understand the research on screen time and social media across age groups, and how to then apply autonomy-supportive strategies to managing both in your families. I distill this chapter into several take-home tips here, but know there is a lot more information backing up these recommendations.

Autonomy-Supportive Screen Time Tips

Here are a few guiding tips for an autonomy-supportive instead of controlling approach to managing screen time and digital-life activities in your family—for summer and the rest of the year:

1.     Observe your child. What do you notice about their mood and behavior after they have been on a device for a while? Some kids are really fine. Others are more explosive (the younger they are, the more likely this is the case). Find their own sweet spot for screen time instead of following a hard and fast 2-hour rule. Different types of screen activities may have different effects – like a TV show can be calming compared to the stimulating dopamine spikes from playing competitive video games.

2.     Involve your child in establishing rules. As they get older, they can participate more in setting up rules and expectations related to both screen time and screen-related activities (social media, video games). As part of this discussion, review the reasoning for having limits. Get their input – the older they are, the more they can notice and describe how they feel after “too much.” According to experts, screen time limits are most beneficial for kids under 12, so teens 12 and older will likely respond better to a more individualized and collaborative approach.

3.     Be flexible. As kids age, they need less structure. Be open to supervising less to demonstrate trust in their judgment and help them learn to tune into internal limits (“I’ve had enough time on my phone”) instead of relying on you to do it for them. Ongoing discussions about what “too much” feels like can support kids in becoming more aware of their internal states.

4.     Stay curious. If they falter with online and social media activities – and they will – show up with curiosity instead of punishment to help them learn from the mistake. Consequences may be an appropriate part of the learning process, but this is different from “you have lost your phone forever!”

Preaching What I Practice

With my kids, I work on seeing screen time as an ongoing puzzle with changing piece grooves that force us to continuously evaluate the big picture and adjust how we fit the pieces together. This helps keep me flexible instead of rigidly adhering to rules that can start to feel arbitrary when your child asks, “but why?” It’s okay if your screen time policies shift as quickly as your child’s shoe size. That’s kind of the point – to keep up with their developmental changes and needs.

As the youngest in our household, my 8-year-old needs more limits and enforcement than his sisters. We observe that TV can actually be calming for his active brain and he self-regulates well when he feels done with shows. But after finally allowing Fortnite after a year and a half of fending off his begging, he’s becoming fixated on battle royales and has a hard time stopping at the appointed time. This new challenge is generating discussions about the reason for limiting Fortnite time, which is to ensure it doesn’t interfere with other activities good for his body and brain, like playing outside and reading a book.

On the other end of the developmental spectrum, my 13-year-old and us came to an agreement that we do not track her screen time. I am not suggesting this as a widespread recommendation; this has to do particularly with her personality and our dynamic. It’s an example of regarding each child as an individual rather than a statistic in a research study. However, our non-negotiable rule is that she charges her phone in our room overnight so her sleep is protected.  

With her, our barometer of “too much phone time” is how she’s functioning across areas of her life. Is she seeing friends in person, spending time outside, and doing non-phone activities in her room? How is her mood and how much is she helping around the house? Our discussions with her revolve around balance. We also integrate how the values of freedom and responsibility intersect: if she wants freedom with her phone, she needs to show responsibility in her daily life.

It's hard to imagine how eleven-year-old me would have spent my summer mornings had the internet and smart phones existed. Based on my love-hate relationship with both now, I don’t think they would have been as relaxing as watching Bob Barker greet exuberant game show contestants bedecked in outlandish costumes. But I do know that several hours of that classic 80s screen indeed helped my summer feel like summer.

For more reading about screen time and social media:

Screen Time: Is It Really That Bad?
Screen Time in a Pandemic
Social Media, Mental Health, and Teens

Expert rec! Follow parenting tech expert Devorah Heitner, author of Screentime and the upcoming Growing Up in Public, on Instagram and read her Substack for reasonable, science-based tips.

**You can pre-order my book Autonomy-Supportive Parenting: Reduce Parental Burnout and Raise Competent, Confident Children on Amazon and Bookshop.

Summer and Screens: How to Not Have a Power Struggle